Aug. 6—BRUNSWICK — Loggerhead sea turtle nesting in Georgia hit a new high this week as the big reptiles beat their modern-day best for most nests on the state's beaches.
With nesting slowing and hatching surging, the nest count reached 3,953 Sunday and crawled past 3,960 the next morning, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
That eclipses the 3,950 nests in 2019, the previous record since comprehensive surveys began along the Georgia coast in 1989. The state's primary nesting sea turtle hit a low of 358 nests in 2004.
Georgia Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Mark Dodd welcomed news of the record total but cautioned that loggerheads remain on a long if promising path to recovery.
"Loggerheads are a long-lived species that don't reproduce until 30-35 years of age," Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR's Wildlife Conservation Section, said. "Based on current trends, we predict it will take at least another 20 years before we reach our recovery goals."
The region's population of loggerheads — listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — has been increasing at approximately 4% annually since the early 1990s. However, modeling developed by the University of Georgia and the U.S. Geological Survey using nest and genetics data indicates the population will plateau at current levels for about the next 20 years, its progress hobbled by low recruitment during the early 2000s, Dodd explained.
If current protections remain in place at least through that period, the model suggests loggerhead numbers will increase again, possibly reaching levels not seen since the late 1950s.
Weighing 300 pounds or more, female loggerheads crawl ashore on beaches, dig a hole at the base of the dunes and lay their eggs, usually at night, from May into August.
All sea turtle nests, including those of species that seldom nest here such as Kemp's ridley and green, are marked, protected and monitored by the Georgia Sea Turtle Cooperative. The DNR-coordinated network of federally permitted volunteers, researchers and agency employees patrols beaches daily during nesting season.
The effort not only eases predation and increases the number of young that hatch, the data collected is used to assess loggerhead populations, assess threats and inform management. Cooperators also help with beach management. The program has been in play on Georgia beaches for more than 30 years.
DNR's Wildlife Conservation Section works to conserve sea turtles and other wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats. The agency does this largely through public support from fundraisers, grants and contributions.
Key fundraisers include sales and renewals of the bald eagle and monarch butterfly license plates and renewals of older wildlife plate designs, such as the ruby-throated hummingbird. These tags cost only $25 more than a standard plate to buy or renew. Up to $20 of that fee goes to help wildlife.
All marine turtles in Georgia are protected by state and federal law. To help conserve these species:
— Minimize beachfront lighting during nesting season. Turn off, shield or redirect lights.
— When walking the beach at night, don't use flashlights and flash photography. They can deter turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause them to abort nesting.
— If you encounter a sea turtle on the beach — including hatchlings — remain quiet, still and observe them only from a distance.
— Leave turtle tracks undisturbed. Researchers use them to identify the species and mark nests for protection.
— Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, Styrofoam and trash floating in the water as food. After ingesting trash, it can kill them by clogging their intestines.
— Protect beach vegetation: It stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.
— When boating, stay alert and avoid turtles. Of the 84 sea turtles found dead or hurt in Georgia last year, 45 percent that could be assessed had suffered injuries consistent with being hit by a boat. Boaters who hit a sea turtle are urged to stand by and immediately call DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363).
Also report any dead or injured sea turtles seen at 800-272-8363. (If the turtle is tagged, include the tag color and number in the report if possible.)
Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia DNR
Anglers who hook or entangle a sea turtle should call DNR at 800-2-SAVE-ME (800-272-8363). Also:
— Keep your hands away from the turtle's mouth and flippers.
— Safely land the turtle using a net or by walking it to shore. Do not lift the turtle by the hook or by pulling on the line.
— Leave the hook in place; removing it can cause more damage. (Anglers are encouraged to use non-stainless, barbless hooks when possible.)
— Keep the turtle out of direct sunlight and cover it with a damp towel.
— If an angler cannot reach DNR, cut the line as short as possible and release the turtle.
Caretta caretta: Most common sea turtle on Georgia's coast; found off coast year-round. Also one of the world's largest turtles, topping 350 pounds and sporting a carapace up to 44 inches long. How long loggerheads live is not known.
Range: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. Nests in the U.S. from Virginia to Texas.
Nesting: Females reach sexual maturity at 30-35 years. From about May through August, they crawl ashore at night, dig a hole in the face of dunes along barrier island beaches, and deposit and cover eggs.
Pilgrimage: Eggs hatch in 55-65 days. The young scramble for the water, beginning a journey that can take them from sargassum weed off Georgia's shores to a current-powered loop that circles to the Azores and the eastern Atlantic Ocean, south to west Africa and back to the western Atlantic.
Eats: Fish eggs and small invertebrates when small. As adults, they eat mainly crabs and mollusks, but also forage items like jellyfish and dead fish.
Status: Federally listed as threatened since 1978. Georgia DNR reclassified loggerheads in the state from threatened to endangered in 2006.
Threats: Primarily mortality associated with commercial fishing activities, but also nest predation by raccoons and feral hogs, poaching, loss of habitat, boat strikes, and even ingestion of plastic litter mistaken as food.
Georgia nesting updates by beach — seaturtle.org/nestdb/?view=3;